Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the year of victory red lipstick

During her victory speech, newly elected Rep. Ayanna Pressley asked the crowd, “Can a congresswoman wear her hair in braids, rock a black leather jacket and a bold red lip?”
Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

It was a historic night for women in politics. Women won more seats in Congress than at any point in history — 92 in the House and 10 in the Senate — including the first Native American and first Muslim women ever elected to Congress and the two youngest Congress members ever to serve.

Among the latter was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York’s 14th Congressional District, a Latina 29-year-old democratic socialist who defeated the Democratic incumbent during the primaries in June in a major upset, then went on to easily beat her Republican opponent in the general election.

And then there was Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman Massachusetts has ever elected to Congress. She, too, was almost guaranteed to win after defeating the Democratic incumbent in the primaries, and last night she ran unopposed.

But besides this, and besides both women being symbols of change and progress in their respective districts, one thing Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley share is their choice of standout red lipstick.

And for women of color running against powerful male incumbents, the choice to wear lipstick, or which shade to choose, is not a trivial one. During Pressley’s victory speech, she talked about the questions that are uniquely posed to women of color in politics: questions like, “Is your appeal broad enough?” or, “Are you playing identity politics?”

She continued, “Can a congresswoman wear her hair in braids, rock a black leather jacket and a bold red lip?” You can watch this part of her speech at around the 4:30 mark in the video below.

With the election of Pressley, alongside 111 other women Congress members, the answer appears to be yes. Ocasio-Cortez, too, hasn’t shied away from discussing topics like makeup and clothing — things that are extremely normal for people to talk about but are often trivialized in the predominantly male realm of politics.

On June 17, she helpfully tweeted the exact shade of lipstick she wore during a previous debate: Stila Stay All Day liquid in the shade Beso.

Like Pressley, she appeared to be wearing her signature shade in her victory speech last night, in which she focused on the need to continue fighting for change.

For both of these women, as Cheryl Wischhover wrote for Racked, their lipstick is the “least important thing about [them.]” But it is also worth talking about. Presentation in politics is important: It’s why so many politicians who have never worked on a farm in their lives wear barn jackets in ad campaigns, and why Beto O’Rourke is celebrated for sweating through his shirts — these are visual markers of authenticity, which then encourages voters to see them as a representative who puts in the work, so to speak.

Red lipstick is something different. It’s bold, it’s bright, it’s a symbol of power and vitality. It has quite literally been a symbol for women’s rights and victory throughout American history. It makes sense that some in the newly elected class of women Congress members have not only embraced it but have called attention to it.

A politician’s lipstick, of course, will never outweigh their politics. But as Wischhover continues:

Choosing to wear a lip color [Ocasio-Cortez] (presumably) loves and feels comfortable in will feel familiar to women of her generation, and likely endeared her to many. Because guess what: you can care about deep, important issues like health care and good schools and ICE and still talk to your friends about your favorite lipstick color. You can still use a bold lip to boost your confidence at work, even if your workplace is the House of Representatives. After all, this is the generation which has embraced the feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as a Boots makeup ambassador.

Women in politics will likely always be scrutinized far more than their male counterparts for the things they choose to wear, but with a historic number of women newly elected to Congress, it’s possible that questions like Pressley’s — “Can a congresswoman wear her hair in braids, rock a black leather jacket and a bold red lip?” — will no longer have to be asked.

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